Going into a new Quentin Tarantino film, one always feels a sense of nervous dread. His movies are always an intense ride, and that’s exactly why his legion of fans love him.
Yet it’s also why “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” which intertwines the fictional story of a fading television star and his longtime stunt double with the infamous true-life saga of the Manson family, might leave many of those fans feeling disappointed.
It’s not because Tarantino’s latest opus isn’t full of artistry. One cannot help but marvel at his technical skills as a filmmaker, or at the layers upon layers built into the intricately woven tapestry of his screenplay; it’s the work of a seasoned artist at the peak of his talents, arguably his most confident and polished effort to date. Nor is it anything to do with the cast; Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt give career-best performances, and Margot Robbie is utterly luminous as real-life starlet Sharon Tate.
Even so, walking out of the theater afterward, you might be tempted to think that the bad-boy auteur, after a nine-film career full of audacious masterpieces, has gotten soft with age.
It’s difficult to discuss exactly what is meant by this without being forced to provide spoilers – something that would be truly a shame – but it has everything to do with the period in which it is set.
Timed to arrive during the 50th anniversary of the sea-change year that was 1969, “Hollywood” feels like part of a wave of nostalgia taking place in the culture as we look back at that seminal summer. It was, after all, in the wake of such watershed moments as the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Stonewall uprising that the Manson murders took place – a macabre milestone, to be sure, which in many ways served as the final blow in the long, slow death of American innocence that had begun with the Kennedy assassination six years before.
It feels like the perfect backdrop for Tarantino to explore the thorny bundle of obsessions that marks his body of work – and so he does, with palpable and sometime infectious glee. Yet incredibly, and uncharacteristically, he seems bent here not on exposing the dark side of that iconic era, but rather on erasing it.
Tarantino finds a way to extract both a literal and figurative “Hollywood ending” designed to reinforce – not undermine – the hope that sprang from so many of 1969’s other landmark events. How he accomplishes this (or whether he succeeds) is something that deserves to be experienced first-hand, but it’s worth pointing out that the film’s very title – down to its very deliberate use of ellipses – tells you in no uncertain terms that what you are seeing is a fairy tale, and it’s wise to remember that as it enters its final reels. Even so, it’s easy to see why audiences may feel dissatisfied by “Hollywood.” Who would expect anyone, particularly this director, to turn a film about the Manson murders into a buddy film with a feel-good ending?
That doesn’t mean “Hollywood” is devoid of the over-the-top, baroque violence that has become synonymous with this filmmaker’s name. Violence hangs over the entire thing like a shroud; the entire premise hinges on the real-life horror that we know is destined to take place on that summer night in the Hollywood Hills, and even those with limited knowledge of the factual history know just enough to realize that there’s going to be an inevitable climactic bloodbath.
Yet there’s something about the violence in this particular Tarantino film that provokes us differently.
In Tarantino’s fantasy version of 1969 – as in the real one – the pop culture in which his anti-hero protagonists participate drips with violence; it’s all part of an ethos in which fighting, guns and killing are not only necessary evils, but a defining core of true masculinity. In such a world, violence is only bad when it’s done by bad people, but when the good guys do it, we cheer.
It’s also a time when the culture is changing; the old ways still dominate, but there’s a growing rift between past and future, reflected in the rise of counter-cultural influence as the old studio system loses its grip on the industry. There are constant reminders of how much has changed since then – everyone smokes, for example, even two feet away from small children, and it’s still standard practice for men to call any female “honey” or “pumpkin pie.” It’s notable, too, that almost the entire cast is white; for a director known for exploring race, this is clearly a significant point.
The emphasis on change, of course, only underlines how much remains the same. Today, in the midst of another divisive societal shift, it’s impossible not to see the parallels. In this light, Tarantino’s endorsement of old-fashioned machismo, along with the implied misogyny and racism that goes with it, has echoes of MAGA, and his seeming assertion that violence is fine when there’s a good reason for it sits uncomfortably – especially in the wake of the three mass shootings that took place within the film’s opening week.
This, of course, is where Tarantino proves that he has far from lost his edge.
“Hollywood,” like his entire canon, is shaped by the films produced during this very era, and therefore embraces their paradoxically moral amorality to reconstruct the past – and by extension, the present – in the image of their projected dream. He’s done it before, exacting revenge (one of the most essential themes in his movies) on the past by beating it into submission with his art. We may not like the bill of goods he’s selling – in fact, many of us may hate it – but that’s the whole point. He’s showing us our own collective selves, reflected back at us through the expressions that have always dominated our popular imagination, and if we don’t like what we see, the responsibility lies on our own shoulders.
That’s what a great artist does, in any medium. Their work excites, confronts, and gnaws at the mind for a long time afterward. It evokes a strong, polarizing reaction – but love it or hate it, you have to acknowledge the genius behind it.
“Hollywood” may be this director’s crowning achievement, or it may be a weak entry from a fading star – judging from the reactions generated so far, it depends on whom you ask. So, get over that sense of dread and go decide for yourself. You may not like it, but you know you’ll enjoy it – and Quentin Tarantino knows it, too.